Super Bowl LVI's in the books, ending the longest season in NFL history. How did the new guys perform in the expanded 285-game slate? Gennaro Filice and Nick Shook are taking a division-by-division look at each team's rookie class, providing grades and analysis on Year 1 production. Filice examines the NFC North below.
- (No. 7) Penei Sewell, OT, 16 games/16 starts
- (41) Levi Onwuzurike, DT, 16 games/0 starts
- (72) Alim McNeill, NT, 17 games/6 starts
- (101) Ifeatu Melifonwu, CB, 7 games/4 starts
- (112) Amon-Ra St. Brown, WR, 17 games/9 starts
- (113) Derrick Barnes, LB, 17 games/6 starts
- (257) Jermar Jefferson, RB, 7 games/0 starts
Notable Undrafted Free Agent
- Jerry Jacobs, CB, 13 games/9 starts
- Tommy Kraemer, OG, 9 games/3 starts
- Ryan McCollum, C, 13 games/1 start
- AJ Parker, CB, 13 games/7 starts
- Riley Patterson, K, 7 games/0 starts
- Brock Wright, TE, 10 games/5 starts
Remember how freakin' AMPED Brad Holmes and Dan Campbell were to select Sewell at No. 7 overall? Boisterous bro hugs, impassioned table slaps, full-throated WOOOOOOs that'd make Ric Flair proud -- that draft-night prospect call really had it all. And with Year 1 in the books, Detroit's new regime deserves a hearty slap on the back for the rookie class as a whole.
Of course, it wasn't smooth sailing from Day 1, even for the ballyhooed blocker who set off that war room eruption. Much like eventual Offensive Rookie of the Year winner Ja'Marr Chase, Sewell endured some early struggles. While the Bengals receiver had drop issues, the Lions tackle clearly didn't immediately feel comfortable in his transition to the right side of the line. But like Chase, Sewell eventually settled in to become a dominant force. One thing that appeared to help Sewell get out of his rut: Just before the season kicked off, Taylor Decker suffered a finger injury that landed him on injured reserve, allowing Sewell to return to the blind side for two months. But even after Decker's activation sent Sewell back to the right side, the rookie thrived. In his final eight games of the season, he allowed just one sack while continually blowing open holes in the ground game. And speaking of second-half surges, St. Brown's production exploded when the calendar flipped to December. Over the final six weeks of the season, the slot machine racked up the second-most catches in the entire NFL (51), behind only receiver triple-crown winner Cooper Kupp (53). Add in 560 yards (fourth-most) and five touchdowns (tied for second) during this span, and the 17th receiver selected in the 2021 draft suddenly became a fantasy league winner.
While some of the other picks in Rounds 2-4 experienced ups and downs (and injuries), McNeill was a player who offered strong potential on the nose -- 330-pounders aren't supposed to be that athletic. I mean, look at the big man's bend on this sack! And Holmes really did some fine work in the undrafted free-agent market, with a half dozen players providing Year 1 contributions. The two most notable names: Jacobs, who was the team's best cornerback before suffering an ACL tear in December, and Patterson, who settled the kicker position by converting 13 of 14 field goal attempts over the final seven weeks of the season.
- (No. 29) Eric Stokes, CB, 16 games/14 starts
- (62) Josh Myers, C, 6 games/6 starts
- (85) Amari Rodgers, WR, 16 games/1 starts
- (142) Royce Newman, OG, 17 games/16 starts
- (173) Tedarrell Slaton, NT, 17 games/0 starts
- (178) Shemar Jean-Charles, CB, 14 games/0 starts
- (214) Cole Van Lanen, OG, 1 game/0 starts
- (220) Isaiah McDuffie, LB, 13 games/0 starts
- (256) Kylin Hill, RB, 8 games/0 starts
With shutdown corner Jaire Alexander sidelined by a shoulder injury for most of the season, Stokes was thrown into fire. The rookie didn't just survive, he thrived. To the tune of a 79.1 passer rating allowed in coverage, per Pro Football Focus. A rare mix of size (6-foot-1 with long arms) and speed (4.25 40 at Georgia's pro day), Stokes helped key Green Bay's Week 10 shutout of Seattle with a personal shutout of DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett. Now, the 22-year-old isn't without flaw. His ball skills and general technique leave something to be desired. Still, the man's natural traits are always in demand. "He's an unbelievably talented kid," defensive coordinator Joe Barry said in December. "He's got everything you want in an NFL corner." That's not hyperbolic coachspeak.
On the offensive side of the ball, Green Bay drafts are typically framed nowadays by a simplistic question: Did the Packers make Aaron Rodgers happy? Well, in the wake of Corey Linsley's free agency departure, Green Bay looked to replace the first-team All-Pro center by hopping on a pivot in Round 2. Myers was a viable Day 1 starter, but injuries derailed his rookie campaign. With a clean bill of health, he should be a solid pro going forward. That said, Packer Backers who dabble in masochism will point out that Green Bay took Myers one pick before Kansas City landed Creed Humphrey, who not only proved to be the best rookie center but quite possibly the best pivot in football in 2021. Hindsight's 20/20. Back on the plus side, the Packers got 16 starts out of Newman. Taken late in the fourth round, the guard took some time to settle in, but he only allowed one sack over his final eight games. The most disappointing debut season came from Amari Rodgers. As the highest-drafted Packers receiver since Davante Adams (No. 53 overall in 2014), the Clemson slot was viewed as something of an olive branch to Green Bay's mercurial signal-caller. Unfortunately, he was a complete non-factor on offense and had ball-security issues as a returner.
- (No. 11) Justin Fields, QB, 12 games/10 starts
- (39) Teven Jenkins, OT, 6 games/2 starts
- (151) Larry Borom, OT, 10 games/8 starts
- (217) Khalil Herbert, RB, 17 games/2 starts
- (221) Dazz Newsome, WR, 3 games/1 start
- (228) Thomas Graham, CB, 4 games/1 start
- (250) Khyiris Tonga, NT, 15 games/2 starts
Chicago's aggressive draft-day trade up for Fields was met with universal acclaim. Did it reek of desperation from a head coach-general manager combo seeking a lifeline? Sure. But whatever. The team's late-March Andy Dalton "QB1." tweet was unintentional-humor gold, and the bizarre pre-draft depreciation of Fields' draft stock had put him in range of a franchise that's lacked quarterback stability for the better part of seven decades. So, in the wake of Fields' rookie campaign, what's the early appraisal on Matt Nagy and Ryan Pace's bold move?
Well, Nagy and Pace are no longer with the team, but frankly, their seats were on fire entering the 2021 campaign. To be safe, they at least needed a winning season. Fields couldn't provide that, with Chicago going 2-8 in 10 uneven starts from the rookie. But the 22-year-old did flash rare traits with his arm and legs, despite the fact Nagy didn't always put him in the best position to show them off. He still holds onto the ball too long -- which helps explain his 12 fumbles in 12 total games -- but that 4.4 pro day speed translates quite nicely to the pro game. And his downfield accuracy's undeniable, whether he's standing tall in the pocket, rolling to the right or escaping a collapsing pocket to his left. The skill set's highly enticing -- now it's up to the new coaching staff to cultivate consistency. Chicago hired a defensive-minded head coach in Matt Eberflus, so Fields' fostering falls on new offensive coordinator Luke Getsy, who spent the last three years across the division as the position coach for a pretty good quarterback in Green Bay.
Beyond the marquee-topping first-round pick, Chicago's 2021 draft haul was a mixed bag in Year 1. While Jenkins' rookie season was marred by injuries and inadequacy, the Bears' second OT selection (Borom) proved to be a late-round find. Speaking of which, Herbert and Graham look like sixth-round steals, albeit in a much more limited sample size for the latter.
- (No. 23) Christian Darrisaw, OT, 12 games/10 starts
- (66) Kellen Mond, QB, 1 game/0 starts
- (78) Chazz Surratt, LB, 9 games/0 starts
- (86) Wyatt Davis, OG, 6 games/0 starts
- (90) Patrick Jones II, DE, 9 games/0 starts
- (119) Kene Nwangwu, RB, 11 games/0 starts
- (125) Camryn Bynum, S, 14 games/3 starts
- (134) Janarius Robinson, DE, 0 games
- (157) Ihmir Smith-Marsette, WR, 8 games/1 start
- (168) Zach Davidson, TE, 0 games
- (199) Jaylen Twyman, DT, 0 games
Minnesota sensibly could've taken Darrisaw at No. 14 overall, but the Vikings traded down, scooped up a pair of third-round picks ... and still nabbed Darrisaw at No. 23. A nagging groin injury significantly limited the rookie's offseason work and ultimately cost him the first month of the regular season, but he took the starting LT reigns in mid-October and acquitted himself pretty darn well ... until an ankle injury cost him two games in December. Outside of the health issues, Darrisaw definitely showed enough to make you believe he could man Minnesota's blind side for years to come.
The problem with this draft class? The remaining 10 picks. The Vikings just didn't get much bang for the buck, starting with the two third-rounders they picked up in the aforementioned draft-day trade with the Jets: No. 66 (where they took Mond) and No. 86 (Davis). Now, Mond was always viewed as a developmental prospect picked to marinate behind Kirk Cousins, but Mike Zimmer's brutally honest response to questions about the quarterback just prior to the season finale was eye-opening. With Minnesota eliminated from the playoffs, Zimmer was asked if he'd like to get a look at Mond in Week 18. "Not particularly," the now former Vikings coach deadpanned. "I see him every day." Savage is an overused term these days, but man ... SAVAGE!! As for Davis, he didn't log a single play from scrimmage in Year 1, limited to 28 special teams snaps across six games. Like Mond, he was generally dismissed by Zimmer, who A) has a quirky personality, to put it nicely; and B) barely trusts rookies to do anything beyond tying their cleats. Have to imagine Mond and Davis warmly welcome the Kevin O'Connell era in Minneapolis.
The biggest non-Darrisaw returns from this class probably came via Bynum, who showed promise in a transition from college cornerback to NFL safety. Nwangwu also deserves some ink for his potency as a kick returner, having posted touchdowns of 99 and 98 yards.